{Travel} Fun Taiwan: A foray into the heartlands

My two-week hiatus has allowed me to share with you my newest adventure yet: Taiwan! It’s always a good idea to travel in a group of close family or friends, especially when your ultimate goal is to try as much of the local fare as possible. Seven of us would buy plenty of dishes and snacks, all in singular quantities, to be shared. Living by this rule-of-thumb, our bellies were spared from exploding, our purses were saved from desolation, and best of all, we had the chance to taste and savour a range of yummies.

The best of Taiwanese cuisine can be found in night markets. Night markets or 夜市 (ye4 shi4) are usually unassuming streets or lanes in the day but transform into hip and happening areas at night, populated by a wide array of food hawkers and other vendors.

As our Taiwan itinerary moved from northern Taiwan to down south,  the following descriptions will begin from our first stop: Shilin Night Market (士林夜市), Taipei. One of the most popular night markets yet, Shilin was packed to the brim with people, local Taiwanese and tourists alike. Here, we got our first taste of true Taiwanese culture. 青蛙下蛋 (qing1 wa1 xia4 dan4) literally translates to ‘frog lays eggs’ is a popular beverage originating from Shilin but is now available in almost all night markets in Taiwan. A variation to the ubiquitous pearl milk tea, this particular drink has larger tapioca pearls and when boiled, these pearls take on a whitish centre, like that of frog eggs; hence the interesting name.

Stinky tofu 臭豆腐 (chou4 dou4 fu3) is also unfortunately everywhere. The tofu is first fermented and then deep dried and served with spicy dipping sauce and sliced vegetables. The stench is alike your very poorly managed drainage system. Ick. Some do enjoy it though I will never understand this fascination.

To be fair, I do love my durian.

大肠包小肠 (da4 chang2 bao1 xiao3 chang2) translates to ‘big sausage wrapped around small sausage’, is a local favourite of a glutinous rice sausage in pork casing being slit to accomodate a  sweet Taiwanese pork sausage. Eaten together, it can be a very filling snack due to the glutinous rice. The best 大肠包小肠 I would recommend so far would be the one from Taichung Fengjia Night Market (逢甲夜市). A well-seasoned glutinous rice sausage and a fat and juicy pork sausage, garnished with stir-fried shallots make 官芝霖大肠包小肠 at 逢甲夜市 a hit.

花生冰淇淋卷 (hua1 sheng1 bing1 qi2 lin2 juan3) is a snack consisting of shavings of peanut brittle, scoops of vanilla and yam ice cream and  cilantro leaves, all wrapped in a thin spring roll skin. Delicious!

木瓜牛奶 (mu4 gua1 niu2 nai3) is a blend of papaya and fresh milk. Sweet and refreshing, many believe that this is the secret to bigger bust sizes. I don’t think it’s scientifically proven to be effective but it sure slides down the throat easily after all the greasy and salty food.

We had 滷肉饭 (lu3 rou4 fan4) at 饒河街观光夜市 (Rouhe Night Market). 滷肉饭 is basically white rice topped with stewed ground fatty pork. I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of calories in one mouthful of this dish alone. Always a good idea to share!

Fried chicken breast is another favourite. In Mandarin, it is called 炸鸡扒 (zha4 ji1 pa2). The variation we tried had a gooey cheddar cheese stuffing from Taichung’s Fengjia Night Market. 逢甲 is reportedly the biggest night market in Taiwan. Not only reknowned for its great food, shopping is wonderful as well with great bargains abound. Clothes, bags, shoes, everything!

面包包面 (mian4 bao1 bao1 mian4) is a creative invention of pillowy soft buns filled with noodles or spaghetti, depending on your preferences. We had the original Japanese fusion style, which was fried instant noodles topped with mayo and meat in a bun and the cheesy French improvisation of spaghetti bolognaise topped with parmesan and lettuce. The idea of starch on starch may be daunting but the end product was A-class delicious. Carb overloading became a high risk though as we couldn’t get enough of it.

At Kaohsiung’s famous 六合夜市 (liu4 he2 ye4 shi4), we had some of the best street foods among the three major cities we’ve visited. 鱼羹面线 (yu2 geng1 mian4 xian4) is thin vermicelli rice noodles in a thickened broth with fried fish nuggets. It is so good that we returned for a second helping in the middle of the night before we left Taiwan.

The fried oyster bun was packed to the brim with fresh oysters, leeks and a whole egg, then deep fried. The golden skin was crispy, enveloping plump oysters, which gave satisfying pops of briny juiciness with each mouthful. The egg added a nice dimension to the entire snack by giving it a more wholesome mouth feel while balancing out the saltiness of the leeks and oysters. A Plus! This is a must-try if you ever visit Kaohsiung Liuhe Night Market.

There was a never-ending array of local delicacies to tempt our tastebuds, and all at an affordable price. The food usually range from 35 to 90 New Taiwan dollars, which amounts to about 1 to 3 Australian dollars. Oh yes, cheap as!

Some other famous Taiwanese delights include the 蚵仔煎 (ke4 zai3 jian1), or more commonly called the oh-ar-jian – the oyster omelette. The texture is made soft and sticky by a mixture of oysters, egg and tapioca starch. It is a variation of the or-jien found in Malaysia and Singapore. As a huge oyster fan, this hits the spot just nicely.

意面 (shan4 yu2 yi4 mian4) is eel noodles. Thick noodles are first  dry fried in a wok then the eel and vegetables are added. The dish is lastly bathed in thick broth. Tasting faintly of ketchup and very much of the smokiness of great wok-frying, it is an interesting culinary journey, especially with this method of eating eel.

Bean curd with ginger syrup provided a refreshing palate cleanser with its subtle ginger flavour and smooth texture. 胡椒餅 (hu2 jiao1 bing3) is a flaky skinned bun-like snack filled with marinated meat, black pepper and spring onion. The bun is baked in a clay oven and served piping hot.

Of the six night markets (of which one was not worth mentioning), my favourite was 瑞芳夜市 (rui4 fang1 ye4 shi4). Ruifeng Night Market is different from the others as rather than located along a long straight street, it is set up atop some sort of public square. Stalls offering foods ranging from seafood hot pots to smelly tofu were abundant, sending tantalising smells wafting. There were also drinks stalls, clothes stalls, bag stalls, accessories, games and even some sort of demonstration booths selling household products.

At 130NTD (4 AUD) a pop, the sizzling plate thick cut steak with noodles and an egg was absolutely worth the long wait and cheap fare. Generous and cooked to medium, the steak was tender, juicy and expertly seasoned. The runny egg yolk was a tasty bonus while the noodles mop up the delicious steak sauce perfectly.

Another recommendation was the roasted pork knuckle, served with a cracking crackling, it was definitely porky heaven on the tip of a toothpick!

So, if you ever pop by Taiwan, please do spend some time in the night markets. The best way to immerse in the culture anywhere is via food and hang out at the local favourites. Lucky for you and me, the night markets of Taiwan provide just the perfect place for both without busting the bank. An entirely enjoyable experience!